In Depth: Motion Stabilization Options, Part 1 of 2

Sometimes using a tripod is not an option and you’re forced to shoot hand-held. Maybe you’re shooting in an amusement park, botanical gardens, or a concert and tripods are not allowed in. Unless you have the ability to stand perfectly still, you will likely need to stabilize the footage in postproduction. Motion stabilization is used to smooth footage and remove camera shake.

An In Depth look at Motion Stabilization Options


Sometimes using a tripod is not an option and you’re forced to shoot hand-held. Maybe you’re shooting in an amusement park, botanical gardens, or a concert and tripods are not allowed in. Unless you have the ability to stand perfectly still, you will likely need to stabilize the footage in post-production. Motion stabilization is used to smooth footage and remove camera shake.

The footage used in some examples in this article were shot on my iPhone 4 in a kayak and it’s all hand-held. I wasn’t about to take a nice camera out on the river, especially since it was my first time kayaking. Not only that, a tripod would not be all that helpful with the movement of the water. Others were shot on iPad, some on Canon 7D and some with other cameras. Most of the footage that I have that needs stabilization was shot handheld and without much planning, so I didn’t have professional equipment around. When customers contact me about stabilizing footage, 99% of the time it is footage that was shot on a camera phone or low-end camera and handheld.

In my book, Plug-in to After Effects: Third Party Plug-in Mastery, I did a big section in Chapter 13, I go into detail on stabilization and the tools in After Effects. This article will be broader, covering several other host applications.

General Tips for Stabilizing Footage

  1. Depending on the footage, some stabilizing tools will work better than others. Try Imagineer mocha if AE’s Warp Stabilizer isn’t giving you what you’re looking for. Some shots just can’t be fixed easily. For example, the swimming shots I stabilized in AE Warp Stabilizer turned out great, but Boris BCC Optical Stabilizer wouldn’t give me a good result.
  2. Beware of the rolling shutter ripple effect. Sometimes you will end up with rolling shutter ripple effect (warped or jittery results)  Quick movements can cause major problems with rolling shutter artifacts and motion blur. Adobe Warp Stabilizer deals with this fairly well compared to other tools.
  3. Locate a good reference point. Most trackers will require you to choose reference frames and points. The reference point should be a corner or pixels with high contrast. Flat patterns like solid blue skies or walls or very busy patterns like water, do not give the tracker much to work with. Also, choose a point that doesn’t move off the screen. Many trackers get confused when your point moves off screen.
  4. Fixing it in post isn’t always an option. Some shots just can’t be stabilized. I tried several shots that didn’t work while putting together this article. Know that up front so you’re not promising results you can’t deliver.
  5. If you are not getting good results, run it through more than once. Try smoothing a shot, rendering it, and then bringing in that stabilized movie and run stabilization on it again using different settings. This may help remove that little wobble that you can’t seem to get rid of.
  6. Beware of loss of resolution. When you stabilize a shot, you’ll normally have to scale it, which can soften your shots. Some plug-ins have built-in sharpening options, such as Boris BCC Optical Stabilizer, but you can also try Unsharp Mask or other options for sharpening. The less you need to zoom in, the better, obviously. Some plug-ins have options to generate edges for you but they do not always look right for the scene. More often than not, you will be scaling your footage at least a little bit.
  7. Set your comp to Full resolution before running the stabilization analysis with any plug-in.
  8. Certain plug-ins, such as CoreMelt Lock and Load, need to be in 8-bit color space. 
  9. Trim your clips so you don’t spend a bunch of time analyzing footage and stabilizing that you won’t be using.

Warp Stabilizer  in Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro

Warp Stabilizer

The Warp Stabilizer is an impressive automated stabilization tool introduced in After Effects CS5.5 and Premiere Pro 6. It replaced the old Motion Stabilizer in After Effects and is a VAST improvement, easy to use and allows users to adjust smoothness and framing. The Warp Stabilizer works about the same in After Effects and Premiere Pro, but Premiere Pro has the benefit of allowing users to preview as settings are changed, without having to load a RAM Preview each time, as with After Effects.

The Warp Stabilizer works well with several types of movement and I’ve had great results with it when other stabilizers have failed. It handles the rolling shutter ripple effect better than other stabilizers as well.

  1. Apply Warp Stabilizer (Effects > Distort > Warp Stabilizer) to the footage you want to stabilize.
  2. It will begin Analyzing immediately. A blue bar will appear across your screen proclaiming that the plug-in is Analyzing in Background (Step 1 of 2). This is the longest part of the process. Just be patient. It’s not THAT long. Soon, you’ll see an orange bar across the footage and a message that reads Stabilizing (Step 2 of 2). A great feature is that Warp Stabilizer works in the background so you are able to do other things in AE while it analyzes.
  3. Preview your footage by tapping the space bar or clicking the play button in the Preview panel. Is it exactly as you need it to be? Many times I have not had to tweak the effect at all. It looks great with the default result. However, if your footage is not as you imagined, go on to step 4.
  4. Set the Method. Subspace Warp works fine a lot of the time but there are other options if you’re having issues with rolling shutter artifacts.
  5. Under Result, smooth Motion is the default but there is also the option to have No Motion at all. Some shots may require a lot of smoothing. Some, not so much. I’ve noticed that shots that are tighter framed often need a higher percentage of smoothness. I don’t generally use No Motion because I like it to keep a bit of natural movement in the shot.
  6. Borders. Because Warp Stabilizer is getting rid of the motion of the camera, gaps will be revealed around the footage. With the Warp Stabilizer, you have options for the Borders: Framing and Scaling. With Framing, the options include:
    • Stabilize only, which will not generate any edges or scale the footage
    • Stabilize, Crop, which stabilizes and crops, clearly.
    • I normally have good luck with Stabilize, Crop, Auto-scale,
    • Stabilize, Synthesize Edges, which creates edges from the footage and frames before and after the current frame.Framing
  7. Adjust Auto-scale and Additional Scale as needed. Scaling the shot may work quite well, but may cause major losses in resolution. This will, of course, depend on the footage.
  8. Under Advanced, there is an option to remove Rolling Shutter Ripple, adjust the Crop and more. There’s an option for Detailed Analysis that is useful if your shots are giving you a tough time.

Below is an example of the footage that I shot on a kayak, hand-held, with an iPhone 4. Rolling shutter ripple is a common problem with iPhone and DSLR footage, and I often see it when I pan quickly or when something moves in front of the lens at a rapid rate. This was not too much of an issue here so I didn’t use the Advanced options but I did set Method to Position, Scale, Rotation.

For more information, check out Warp Stabilizer in After Effects CS5.5, CS6 and CC by Todd Kopriva.

Tutorials for Adobe Warp Stabilizer

Boris Continuum Optical Stabilizer

Toolfarm Price: $995. Optical Stabilizer Unit: $99. Download Free Trial

Host support:

  • Adobe After Effects
  • Adobe Premiere Pro
  • Apple Final Cut Pro 7
  • Avid Media Composer
  • Avid DS
  • Sony Vegas Pro

Optical Flow technology is the backbone of BCC Optical Stabilizer. Optical Flow is used in time-based effects like time stretching and faux motion blur. For a very technical explanation of Optical Flow technology, complete with diagrams, visit Wikipedia: Optical Flow. From my book, Plug-in to After Effects: Third Party Plug-in Mastery: “BCC Optical Stabilizer uses Optical Flow technology, which estimates the motion between frames of video and stabilizes or smooths to counteract shakiness. Stabilizing will remove pretty much all movement without the need to track first. If you have handheld footage that pans or zooms, smoothing is the best option. For footage that is locked on a single spot and is shaky, stabilization is key.” Got it?

Boris Continuum Complete BCC Optical Stabilizer is an extremely easy to use and fast tool for stabilization and I generally got good results, but it does depend on the footage. The plug-in works extremely well with footage with clean lines but not so well on areas with flat sky and water. I, of course, found this out well after I messed with a couple of water/sky shots for three hours, frustrated at the results. This is even in the documentation on the plug-in:

Not all imagery is appropriate for optical stabilization. For example, images with large uniform textures, like fields of grain, sky, water, or blank walls will not work well with this filter. Images with lots of motion blur or low contrast images may also cause problems. In addition, perspective shifts (for example, a forward dolly shot) or moving foreground objects that dominate the image will not generate optimum results. For best results, your target region should include a fair amount of contrast with good vertical and horizontal edge definition as well as large areas of non-uniform detail, especially edges in various directions. The motion of the clip should only include panning, zooming and rotation. Large background areas with objects moving independently of the background are also suitable.

To get you started, here’s a quick video with a few examples of BCC Optical Stabilizer at work. I had very good results with panning shots (like the balance beam shot) when I had Mode set to Smooth.

BCC Optical Stabilizer works a lot like AE Warp Stabilizer. Here are the basics.

  1. Apply BCC Optical Stabilizer to the footage you need to stabilize (Effect > BCC Time > BCC Optical Stabilizer). You should see a message across the Composition panel that says “Please click the analyze button to continue.” Do not click anything yet! First you need to set up a couple of things.
    BCC Optical Stabilizer Interface
  2. Choose a Reference Frame, which is framed to your liking. This will be used as a reference for BCC Optical Stabilizer as the basis for stabilization of all other frames. One thing that I don’t like about this plug-in is that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out your reference frame. For example, my clip is around 17 seconds long and I’m using about 3 seconds starting at about 9:08. It’s 29.97 frames per second. I figured that this puts my reference frame about 300 (about 10 seconds into the shot). A little preview or the option to choose the time code would be helpful. If you don’t choose Reference Frame, the default is the first frame, and if you’re panning or setting up your shot, your results can be less than stellar.
  3. Since I want to stabilize the shot, I set Mode to Stabilize. 

This can be changed later on (as can any of the settings, but its nice to set it before analyzing the clip.
  4. Okay, NOW you Click to Analyze. BCC Optical Stabilizer will show you the progress in a popup window. Note: This effect will analyze the full duration of clip, even If you set a work area. Trim your clip before clicking analyze.
  5. After processing finishes, RAM Preview the clip. If your footage is zoomed in entirely too much, twirl open Post Processing and uncheck Auto Scale.
  6. If your shot is warping, set corner points. Choose corners or intersections, or pixels with high contrast for best results. (See the note above about not all footage being good for stabilization with BCC Optical Stabilizer, if you’re not having good luck.)
  7. Under Stabilize there are three options:
    • Translation stabilizes the X and Y-axis only
    • Translation + Rotation stabilizes X and Y, plus rotation. It is perfect for footage like this which is hand-held and doesn’t zoom, since it was shot on iPhone 4, which lacks a zoom.
    • Translation + Rotation + Zoom stabilizes X and Y-axes, and also rotation and scale.
  8. If you’re seeing black borders, which is likely, it’s due to the position of the footage being moved from the exact center of the Comp panel to smooth it, positioned based on your Reference Frame. You have a few options under Edge Handling. You can clip the top, left, bottom or right. Under the Edge Handling, choose one of the following options:
    • Color – Choose a color with the edge color picker and it will appear around the edges.
    • Reflect – mirrors the edges. I find that this is a better method because edges blend into the corners, camouflaging them.
    • Transparent – it’s empty around the edges, revealing layers below stabilized layer
    • Repeat – repeats colors in the edge pixels, creating stripes.
    • Tile – tiles the footage, using content near the edge.
  9. If your footage was scaled to fit the composition window, under Post Processing, set the Quality to Magic Sharp or another option. Magic Sharp is my go to setting for sharpening footage with BCC.
  10. Lastly, Under the Optical Flow options, there are several settings such as Stabilization Samples, Span, Edge Contrast and Resolution, which can help improve your smoothing or stabilization. There is much more information on this in the Boris online help files.

Need more information?


Boris RED Stabilizer

Host support:

  • Adobe After Effects
  • Adobe Premiere Pro
  • Apple Final Cut Pro 7
  • Avid Media Composer
  • Avid DS
  • Sony Vegas Pro

Boris RED includes BCC Optical Stabilizer.

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Posted by Michele Yamazaki